The CEO of a telecom client who was suspicious of branding once asked me if I could cite an example of a brand that had stayed within a category, but differentiated itself in a successful way.

I answered Target.

I made a friend. He said his wife couldn’t pass one up. These two affluent people were examples of how Target appealed to a newer upscale market that would not be seen not going to Target or the 900lb. category gorilla, Walmart.

Simply put, Target invented a difference called cheap chic and created products that were well designed, but reasonably priced. Not only did they attract a slightly more affluent customer, they kept their traditional one at the same time. What gives?

In essence, Target showed that even a more upscale shopper wanted a good deal. But they also wanted style. The unexpected simultaneous effect was that people aspire to better or better-looking merchandise regardless of whether they shop at Walmart or Target. In a way, the strategy upended the stereotype that the Target/Walmart customers were all cheapos or worse poor.

There is a more current example, Michelob Ultra.

Light beers have dominated adult beverage sales for some time on the premise of less filling and less calories. You can still drink beer, but not get fat. Then craft brewers forced a showdown. The crafties bet on the idea of the perceived superior skills of a local brewmaster committed to quality and taste and close to the product would simultaneously beat out the mass produced big boys and shine a light on the crummy taste of the light beer category. Anything that smacks of a diet can’t taste good. Health food usually doesn’t taste good. Ask Jay Leno.

Michelob Ultra out flanked their light beer buddies and gave consumers a way of staying in the category (low carb, low cal), but giving them a powerful reason to quaff the Mich.

It repositioned itself as the light beer for active people. Outdoorsy people. Athletic people. Vigorous and social people. Even people who want fit in their bathing suits, but can’t.

It is an association strategy. It has worked.

Will it continue to work? I certainly don’t know for how long, but it will last if Mich Ultra keeps up the positioning and the media pressure.

Hmmm, I think I’ll have a beer…